When the brand new Greenville Bridge opened to traffic last year, it replaced an old two-lane bridge built in 1940. The new bridge is the longest cable-stayed span on the Mississippi River and its four lanes of traffic carries passengers across a 2½- mile stretch of river connecting Mississippi to Arkansas.
The first time we crossed the Mississippi, we were heading west and visiting Hannibal, Mo., the small town along the banks of the river most known for being the boyhood home of Mark Twain.
The kids and I had completed “Tom Sawyer” just in time for our arrival at the river, but had not even started “Huckleberry Finn.” I was excited to be there, but there were also small pangs of guilt. It was my fault we had not finished both books. If I had only been more insistent that we listen to the audio book for longer periods on our drive.
We started the audio version of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” just as we left Hannibal, marking the beginning of the east-of-the-Mississippi portion of our trip. Maybe, I reasoned, that after visiting Hannibal, Twain’s words would mean even more.
It is a long book, and, just as with “Tom Sawyer,” we had several starts and stops. There were some days, like with cousins in Ohio or on foot in D.C, that we weren’t even in the car and able to listen at all.
When we did listen to the book, I would routinely pause the story to check for understanding and discuss what was happening. We touched on the themes about questioning societal norms, grappling with one’s conscience, and the true meaning of friendship. In addition to being written over a century ago, there are several different southern dialects in the book. Rushing through, we would miss too much, including Twain’s brilliant humor.
Huck Finn’s adventures took longer than I thought to get through and I felt the pressure of the long list of other books I also wanted to read with them.
I half jokingly threatened if we didn’t finish before we got home, I would not let anyone out of the car. We would sit in the car on our driveway listening until the end.
Then the single most magical moment of our trip happened. There is no way I could have planned it better.
We did finish “Huckleberry Finn” – literally on top of the Mississippi River! We were on the last chapter as we found ourselves approaching the Greenville Bridge by complete chance. I slowed my car down as much as possible to savor the odds-defying occasion.
As the final words of the book were read, we looked out on the darkening river, the tree-covered islands, and the orange sky. It was effortless to imagine Huckleberry Finn and Jim on the raft somewhere out there.
“We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” – Chapter 18
“It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.” – Chapter 19
The last words of the book came through the speakers of my car about midway over the bridge.
We erupted in cheers and high fives. “We did it!” “Yes!” “Woo-hoo!”
We crossed the Mississippi River two times on our trip. Both times with Mark Twain.
And look at that. I was so worried about finishing the book when really, it all worked out in its own time and in its own way.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” will always be tangled up in our adventure – especially the crossing of the Greenville Bridge.
As the trip is coming to a close, I asked Payton if he feels he has changed.
“No,” he answered. And then upon brief reflection said, “I feel more aware.”
The Great American Field Trip has been a bridge between before and after. A crossing which has changed each of us forever.